Part 2: Important Aboriginal Art
26 November 2014


(c.1926 - 1989)

synthetic polymer powder paint on composition board

78.5 x 54.5 cm

Private sale

Executed at Papunya, December 1971
John Longley Snr, acquired 1972
Thence by descent
Private collection, Melbourne

Catalogue text

Kaapa Tjampitjinpa was born at the Emu Dreaming site of Yaltjijira on the western edge of Anmatyerr country. He was initiated on Napperby Station where as a young man he worked as a stockman before settling in Haasts Bluff and moving to Papunya in 1957. Prior to the arrival of Geoffrey Bardon and the emergence of painting at Papunya, Kaapa had already established himself as an independent artist. Producing Hermannsburg style watercolour paintings and carved wooden artefacts, Kaapa sold these works to support his family. His earliest paintings show elements of Anmatyerr ceremony in explicit figurative detail, a practice he continued with his first works painted in the Men's Painting Room in 1971-72. Forceful and highly intelligent, he was a key figure in establishing the painting movement. In August 1971, Kaapa led the painting of the Honey Ant Mural, which was produced in collaboration with senior custodians and four other painters. In September that same year, his painting Gulgardi, Men's Ceremony for the Kangaroo won joint first prize at the Alice Springs Caltex Art Award, the earliest public recognition of a Papunya painting. This breakthrough moment would inspire a burst of activity at Papunya, stirring a large group of men to begin painting. With Bardon as facilitator and Kaapa as inspiration, the Papunya artists forged a new painting movement introducing a previously unseen style and iconography that until then had been confined to the ceremonial ground.

In his book, Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert, Geoffrey Bardon writes that the early paintings of Kaapa Tjampitjinpa had'spatial control, elegant symmetry, classic balance and exquisite filigree variations on decorative motifs that gave his work its distinctive monumental presence and heraldic clarity and splendor'.1 Untitled (Goanna Story), 1971 belongs to this early phase of the artist's work at Papunya. As with most of Kaapa's art, there is a strong sense of symmetry in the painting. Naturalistic depictions are a key feature of the work and the artist uses pictorial elements and a seductive delicacy of detail and balance to appeal to the western gaze.

Enclosed by meandering lines of ochre and white, four centrally placed concentric circles in ochre, white and yellow run top to bottom and are the focal point of the painting. All other design elements are symmetrically arranged about these circles and flow outwards to the edge of the board. The almost mirror-image designs show decorated bullroarers emerging from sites, at each of the four corners of the work. Ceremonial poles, two large and two smaller, rise up out of ground paintings, and at the bottom and top of the work two Sacred Goannas face in opposite directions. The painting is a compendium of sacred signs with secular subject matter, not uncommon in the earliest paintings by a number of the first Papunya Tula artists. Kaapa consistently allowed the secular and the sacred to clash in his symbology. As John Kean notes'Kaapa was an adept draughtsman with an unwavering steady hand. He used clear graphic representation to communicate the details of ceremonial performance and in the process, he created a form of representation that was the precursor to the Papunya Tula art movement.'2

Kaapa was instrumental in the establishment of Papunya Tula Artists, serving as the company's inaugural chairman in 1972 and as a board member throughout his painting life. He lived long enough to see the movement he helped to inspire burgeon into a worldwide phenomena.

1. Bardon, G., Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert, McPhee Gribble, Penguin, Melbourne, 1991, p. 108
2. John Kean, in Ryan, J., and Batty, P., Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2011, p. 105